The content of the book may seem to be a re-tread, but it is in fact one of the very first post-apocalyptic plague stories. It set the mold for later versions, such as George R. Stewart's "Earth Abides," Pat Frank's "Alas, Babylon," Nevil Shute's "On the Beach," and of course, Stephen King's "The Stand," amongst others.
First off in this book, the world as we know it is already gone. Out of billions, there are now only a few *hundred* people left on the planet - all scattered, all isolated ...all neo-lithic. There were not enough people left with the know-how to restart society and at the story's opening, there is only one man alive that even remembers the old world.
Furthermore, this book is not the product of an "All are created equal" mentality. No, this is a book that reflects the thinking of a society that sharply divided between nobles and peasants: the former were as unto the gods, while the latter were barely rabble, just mangy curs that needed stay in their cages ...or, be mercifully put out of their misery altogether. It is to the utter horror of the narrator that the debased, pig-like lowborn eventually take rule over the corpse of high society and make it as fetid as themselves.
Most of the book reflects the narrator's callous, maliciously aristocratic view of the world, both past and present. Every low-born in this book is detestable; every high-born is beautiful, desirable and ultimately, profaned and desecrated. The book's characterizations are the stark, black-and-white depictions of a deeply autocratic mindset.
The narrator is disturbingly aghast at the thought of "the servants taking over" the world with their "grubby little hands." Every depiction of a non-noble seems to include words like "savage," "stupid," and "animal" in them. For a wearied, forlorn teller of ended glory, there is a frightening amount of venom streaking through his glorious recall of things past. The narrator's narrow-minded adoration of the high-born (and their lofty pursuits) contrasts with his horror and overwhelming disgust over "the great unwashed." Disturbing is not quite the word for the narrator's view of things.
While far from PC myself, some years ago I took Stewart to task for his dehumanizing descriptions of the mentally challenged; London's book here makes Stewart seem a gleaming saint by contrast. I realize both are products of their times; I do not so much decry that such thoughts were common - only that they were unnecessary, even in a world such as that.
Secondly, I've noticed this book's tone is quite a bit different than Stewart's "Earth Abides," (its closest, to me, subsequent corollary). London's book takes an extremely dim view of human beings in general, an attitude that gives even a dedicated cynic like me some pause.
This book is nothing like the noble, stoic (and *egalitarian*) characterizations of Shute's "On the Beach" or Frank's "Alas, Babylon." There is no final embrace of family in the defiance of looming death; no, here the children are cast into the gutters upon first sign of infection. Women are not prized and valued as mothers of a new Eden here (a limited view, but quite representative of its time); no, here they are subjugated, degraded, and beaten with vigorous, even joyful savagery... they are purely victims of brutish man-beasts.
Nobody dies peacefully here - there is no dignity or nobility or self-sacrifice at any point throughout; no, all persons here are frenzied, heartless carnivores sprinting about in a cyclone of cruelty and depredation... or, their helpless victims.
This is a far more frightful end to civilization than even Stephen King's (much) later interpretation. There's not one shred of beauty or kindness in it from start to finish. It's pure survivalism, dog-eat-dog, and the worst of the worst here live to spread their malignant existence to the rest of the world.
I mean, even in Shute's "On the Beach," where by the book's end every single person on earth is *dead*, even with Shute there was some beauty, some love, something hopeful ...even at the end. With this book, however, although humanity ultimately survives, it feels far darker, bleaker, and much more hopeless than even Shute's depiction of total nuclear armageddon.
As for the book itself, I was glad to finally read it after all these years of hearing about it. It's been out of print for almost a hundred years from what I can tell, and all I could ever find was its far briefer form as a magazine article.
Again, it is representative of its era and its culture and for this, I am quite glad to add it to my collection. While it may sound strange to say this, it is perhaps the bleakest post-apocalyptic tale I've ever read, and I've read dozens.
As for approach to the content itself, Stewart's "Earth Abides" decidedly ignores the fall of civilization itself, focusing instead upon its slow decay amidst a resurgent nature; in contrast, London focuses upon the days of society's fall, glances briefly upon the intervening years, and leaves an acrimonious bounty of reproach upon the depleted present.
Shute's "On the Beach" was compellingly lovely in its dark depiction of humanity's last, silent gasp amidst the void. Frank's "Alas, Babylon" was the defiant cry of life in the midst of great death. Stewart's "Earth Abides" was a beautiful dirge, eloquently mourning the passing of a once-glorious world amidst an ever-decaying and greatly-diminished present.
...but, "The Scarlet Plague" reads like a spit of contemptuous bile onto the ashen ground of civilization's humbled remains.
For me personally, it's a mixed read; it's likely that my years of anticipation for this book (and frequent study of its numerous descendants) have colored the experience for me, so I don't know how objective I can really be here. I suspect I will have to re-read this a few times before I can find its "voice." I suppose I'm just surprised to read a post-apocalyptic tale with such bile; maybe that's an odd thing to say, but it's how I feel about this book.